Most of Australia’s sugar is grown in Queensland and this season is shaping up to be a sweet one

Tall cane crops line the roads, harvesters are in the paddocks and smoke is coming from the chimneys, signifying the start of the crush in Queensland. 

There’s “an air of expectation” with bumper crops, after well-timed rain and favourable prices.

Queensland produces about 95 per cent of Australia’s sugar cane, which is grown over 2,000 kilometres, from Mosman in the north, to Rocky Point, south of Brisbane.

What is the sugar crush?

It is the most vital part of the season after months of preparation from growers and mills.

Paul Schembri, a former chair of Canegrowers, the peak body for Australian sugar cane growers, has no doubt about its significance.

“That creates the cash flow, not just for the industry; that cash flow then moves out into regional economies as well.

“There’s an enormous amount of activity.”

It is estimated 21,000 jobs are created directly or indirectly from the industry.

Huge sugar crops are expected at Isis after receiving good rainfall at the right time.(ABC Rural: Alys Marshall)

What happens next?

The sugar is produced in the back of a mill, and some is refined to convert to white sugar bought in supermarkets and used in commercial production of food.

Eighty to 85 per cent of the sugar is exported, mostly into the Asia Pacific region.

“There’s a new free trade agreement, which should see increased volumes of sugar going to the UK,” Mr Schembri said.

By selling to as many countries as possible, growers can leverage the best possible premiums out of the marketplace.

Prices are good

While the price of fresh produce continues to rise, consumers are unlikely to be affected by the increase in world sugar prices.

“Even though the price of sugar currently is higher than it has been, the amount of sugar that ultimately ends up in the supermarket is not a great deal.”

sugar cane in bin
Sugar cane is a unique and complex industry.(ABC Rural: Tom Major)

Large crops predicted

Isis Central Sugar Mill chief executive officer Peter Hawe says there is great optimism, with a huge crop of 1.53 million tonnes expected.

“Some of our growers have locked in prices over $600 a ton for this season and already probably over $590 a ton for the ’23 season.”

After years of drought, this season is finally one to celebrate.

“We’ve also had a really, really good growing season weather wise or rain wise … in the lead-up there has been rain at the right time,” Mr Dawe said.

A field of tall sugarcane.
There is a lot of optimism this season, with favourable weather conditions after years of drought. (ABC Rural: Alys Marshall)

Wet weather causes some disruptions

However, Maryborough Canegrowers manager Cameron Waterson said wet conditions had delayed the start of the season and caused some internal road damage.

He said the clean-up was “still a work in progress.”

The Australian Sugar Millers Council’s Jim Crane said frost was also a concern in the Mackay area.

“It’s not something that … has a dramatic immediate impact,” he said.

“If the cane has been badly damaged [by frost], you’ve probably got six to eight weeks to process it without any real impact on either yield or quality.”

A field of sugar cane being harvested by a tractor
Some of the first cane being harvested in the Herbert region for 2022.(Supplied: Wilmar Sugar)

Promising signs for season

The season kicked off in Tully, where supply, quality and yields are promising.

“They’re averaging close to 100 tonnes per hectare,” Mr Crane said.

Wilmar's Victoria Mill
Steam is on at Wilmar’s Victoria Mill, where the sugar crush has recently begun. (Supplied: Wilmar sugar)

“That’s one mill area [and] we need to have a look at what’s happening across the others, but certainly the conditions have been consistent with the crop going on a little bit.”

He said the starting forecast in Queensland was just over 30 million tonnes, but there would be a “quiet view” to exceed that.

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